Istanbul – almost in Turkey

I was last in Istanbul in the 1990s, apart from changing planes on my way home from Georgia, so I was expecting some changes. In fact, a friend who visits every few years told me that the rate of infrastructure improvement had been even greater in the last decade or so, so I was expecting really big changes… To be honest, I’m not sure how much has really changed. Yes, there are three suspension bridges across the Bosphorus (only one visible from the city) and tunnels under it, and metro lines (one with a station on a new bridge above the Golden Horn), but in other respects the city doesn’t seem to me to have been transformed – which is good and bad.

French-built trams passing putside the Sublime Porte

As Caesar might have said, All Byzantium is divided into three parts – simplifying hugely, there’s Sultanahmet, the touristy area south of the Golden Horn (or Haliç), where all the Roman ruins and the greatest mosques are; there’s Beyoğlu, the area north of the Golden Horn, traditionally home to foreigners and their business interests and now the arts and nightlife area; and there’s Üsküdar and Kadiköy on the Asian shore, which are purely Turkish and mellow (I stayed a couple of nights there and enjoyed it). And then there are all the suburbs, where up to 18 million people live, but actually no-one mentions them. Sultanhamet, it has to be said, has been transformed, with many roads traffic-free, a modern tramway crossing the Galata Bridge and going right past all the main sights, and with innumerable hordes of tourists. Get to Haghia Sophia by 09.00 unless you want to queue for an hour, just like in Paris and Florence. It is in fact pretty well managed – yes, the touristy restaurants are expensive, yes, there are lots of Hello-where-you-from? ‘guides’ trying to get your business, but they are very much confined to this area of the city. In the evenings this area is actually quieter than it was, with many backpackers and other tourists now staying in Taksim and elsewhere.

I was pleasantly surprised to see ring-necked parakeets in this area, just like the ones that enliven London and Surrey nowadays. Istanbul is full of hooded crows too; however, the most enjoyable birding is from the ferries, where you’ll see Yelkouan shearwaters (once thought to be the same as the Balearic shearwaters in the western Med, but now identified as a separate species) – they seem to nest to the south in the Sea of Marmara but commute along the Bosphorus to feed in the Black Sea. There are plenty of cormorants too, and alpine swifts.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a house with a television and took the chance to watch From Russia with Love, the Bond movie that’s set in Istanbul and on the Orient Express towards Trieste. In one scene Bond is taken down into ‘Constantine’s reservoir’ beneath the Russian consulate, which they can spy on through a former submarine periscope – this is actually the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnici, built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian (the film-makers presumably thought no-one would have heard of Justinian, or that there was a more obvious link between Constantine and the city of Constantinople). It covers 9,800 square metres (with 336 columns with proper carved capitals, just like a church), but was not measured properly until World War I, when a folding boat was borrowed from a German submarine. Open to tourists since 1987, it’s dark and crowded, but well worth a visit. (Naturally Bond stayed at the ‘Kristal Palas on the heights of Pera’ with its ‘old rope-and-gravity lift’ – a thinly disguised version of the Pera Palace, recently restored to its Orient Express glory but still with its marvellous old lift.) I’d also suggest dropping down to the old waterfront to see the Little Haghia Sophia church, built by Justinian I and Theodora from 527, a church with a dome 17m across that was probably a prototype for its big brother up the hill (which makes it the city’s oldest surviving Byzantine monument) and also for the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It’s now a mosque but is easy to visit, beyond the basic requirement to dress decently and leave your shoes outside. And just inside the Topkapı Palace grounds, the Haghia Irene church is now open to visitors – it was second in size only to Haghia Sophia, but it’s much smaller and there’s nothing much to see inside (Haghia Sophia means Holy Wisdom and Haghia Irene means Holy Peace, but of course you knew that).

Across the Golden Horn, the Beyoğlu district is now known for the contemporary art galleries opening here (particularly in Karaköy, formerly known as Galata); this was the European quarter (originally known as Pera, meaning Across [the Golden Horn] in Greek), home to the Byzantine city’s large Greek population and then to embassies and foreign banks. I went to SALT Galata (mainly a library and café, a victory of style and marketing over substance) and the Yapikredi Kültür Sanat Yayincilik (good modern galleries above a bookshop) and also the Taksim Sanat Galerisi, an institutional exhibition space in the Taksim Square metro station – they’re ok, but it all still seems a bit provincial and insular. Overall, Istanbul is not really the world city it claims to be – signs, websites and indeed people are all a bit monolingual, and clear addresses and directions are a foreign concept – be sure to plan ahead online. It may well make sense to buy the Museum Pass, but you won’t be given a leaflet or a list of the sites for which it’s valid – even so, you can cover the cost just on the major Sultanahmet sites. On the other hand quite a few monuments are closed for restoration, which puts the city in the mainstream of European capitals.

Maybe the opening of Istanbul Modern (a Tate Modern wannabe), now under construction in Tophane alongside the big new GalataPort cruise terminal, will change things; if you go there, do pop across the road to see what’s on at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Centre (run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), an art gallery in a fifteenth-century cannon foundry.

Further up the hill in Beyoğlu is Taksim, a pretty anonymous modern area that is strangely popular with both Turks and many backpackers – yes, there’s a lively bar scene, but it’s really a bit of a rugby scrum and could be just about anywhere in the world (which may be part of the attraction). I’m told it’s changed fast since large numbers of migrants arrived from Syria and Iraq.

Food and drink

Happily, international restaurant/café chains have had very little impact here. My vegan food correspondent reports that he is a bit disappointed by the way veganism was trendy for about six months in 2018 but is now fading away; still, almost every eatery will have vegan options. The quintessential street food is nohutlu pilav, buttery rice with chickpeas (and optional chicken, hot peppers and ketchup), and I also saw a lot of mussels stuffed with rice being sold by street vendors. The beer is dull as dishwater – at least Gara Guzu (Black Sheep, in a local dialect – it should be Kara Kuzu) is trying, with its very adequate IPA, amber, red, black and blonde beers, but almost no-one seems to have heard of it. At least this is one place in the world where I can’t really sneer at hookah (nargileh) cafés as they are as authentic here as anywhere else. (It has to be noted, however, that the Turks don’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as they did, which is a great blessing.)

Transport update

I arrived with Pegasus, the Turkish low-cost airline that flies from London Stansted (and, from July 2019, Manchester) to Sabiha Gokcen, Istanbul’s second airport, on the Asian side of the city. You might say that it’s its third airport, as Atatürk, the main international airport since 1953, was replaced in April 2019 by the new Istanbul Airport, the world’s largest with a capacity of 100 million passengers per year (and eventually double that) – but in September 2019 the new Beijing airport will open, also with a capacity of 100 million/year. My friend describes it as ‘mahoosive’ but well laid out; the rail link won’t open until late 2019 (continuing to Halkalı in 2020) but city buses go there and the new airport taxis are pretty good, he says.

Halkalı, 27km west of the city centre, is also the western terminal of the Marmaray Corridor, another major transport project completed in 2019 – a rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus now links the two suburban lines along the coast of the Sea of Maramara, creating a 77km route that will bind the city’s two halves more closely together. Despite this, a road tunnel (opened in 2016) and the bridges, there’s still an unfeasibly large number of ferries jockeying for space as they link various points on the two shores – and a ferry ride remains one of the quintessential Istanbul experiences.

The Istanbul Kart is a rechargeable smart card that’s valid for travel on the city’s buses, trams, trains, metro, ferries and funiculars; it gives a 40% discount on fares, but there doesn’t seem to be a daily cap, unlike in London. It’s invaluable, but I struggled with the ticket machines which can refuse to take coins or give change for notes and fails to switch to English (likewise the website).

Political shenanigans

Turkey has a despicable government and leader, but one can’t blame Istanbul for that; the city, which generates 55% of Turkey’s exports, 60% of its imports and 16% of its jobs, stands for open and liberal attitudes against the authoritarian Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014. Born in Istanbul, he rose to public notice as the city’s mayor (1994-8) before becoming prime minister then president. The so-called coup attempt of July 2016 led to over 50,000 arrests and over 160,000 people losing their jobs, with the free media, academia and civil society being virtually closed down (Turkey no longer has any interest in joining the EU, whatever Johnson and Farage say, preferring links with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Russia instead).

Local elections in March 2019 were held against a background of economic recession and 20% inflation, but Erdoğan claimed the elections were about the country’s ‘survival’ and portrayed the opposition as ‘enemies of the state’. His AKP won 51% of the vote nationally but lost the cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul – in Istanbul the almost unknown Ekrem İmamoğlu (running against a former prime minister) was leading by just 0.28% when the government stopped the count with 1% of ballot boxes still to be opened. Seventeen days later the government seemed to concede when İmamoğlu was allowed to take over the mayor’s office (although Erdoğan refused to shake his hand at an official function in Ankara). However, in May the government announced that the election in Istanbul would be run again on 23 June, supposedly because some electoral officials were not civil servants, some result papers had not been signed and tens of thousands of civil servants, sacked following the 2016 coup, should not have been allowed to vote; İmamoğlu was removed from office and the currency fell by more than 3%.

The increasingly dictatorial Erdoğan is determined to regain Istanbul, even doing the previously unthinkable and being vaguely nice to the Kurds to win a few votes from them. In which context I was delighted to see in April 2019 that France and Italy had finally recognised the Armenian genocide – the state’s attitude to this and to the Kurds has always been blatantly racist. Another friend is currently visiting Ani, the amazing ruined Armenian city just on the Turkish side of the border, and reports that the word ‘Armenian’ simply doesn’t appear on the information boards there.

In Istanbul the opposition seems unlikely to risk mass protests or a boycott of the re-run election, as the government would simply brand them as terrorists and arrest as many as possible; riot police and water cannon were stationed all over the city anyway when I was there in late April. With luck Erdoğan will turn out to have miscalculated and his actions will give İmamoğlu a more decisive victory in June – I will post a brief update here.